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Themes of The Good Earth
The theme of this novel is not a complicated one. The author is trying
to show how a family can rise from poverty to a position of wealth. However,
the rise in itself is not the crucial element; the background against which
this rise takes place is more important. Wang Lung lives in an era of change.
China has been a backward country in many respects. Her principal fault,
however, was the existence of two distinct classes of people - the rich and
the poor. The rich led a pseudo-cultural existence unconcerned with the
realities of the country. The poor in between fighting plagues, floods and
famines, were taxed as well. On the fringe of these two groups were the
robbers bands who plundered wherever they could.
The old aristocracy of China was rotting away as the result of its own
greed. Waiting for their chance was a group of young intellectuals who claimed
that they were going to bring about many reforms. However, since the time that
The Good Earth was written in 1931, history has shown that these
revolutionaries only intended to replace the old aristocracy with a new one.
They had little intention of doing anything constructive for the poor people.
As a result, when the Communists came after World War II, they were able to
take over China very easily.
Where does Wang Lung fit into this picture? He is a poor man who knows
nothing besides the value of land. Therefore, he spends his entire life
building up a large estate. However, he builds according to the old system.
As he becomes richer, he separates himself from his own people and he allows
himself and his family to fall into the same faults that the other rich had.
Then he allows his sons to separate themselves from the land - that which had
given them their wealth. Although the author does not carry the story
through, the reader knows that this family is destined to fall.
The earth-theme is predominant throughout. As a man pours his energies
into his land he reaps great benefits-survival and self-respect. Miss Buck
appears to be saying that the only thing that can truly save China is the
honest toil of her people who must be allowed to claim the rewards of their
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efforts without oppression.
1. THE EARTH
The main theme of The Good Earth is announced in its title: it is the good earth itself. The story follows Wang Lung's climb from poverty to riches, from toiling peasant to wealthy landowner. But all along the way--like signposts on a road--you may read messages pointing to the deeper meaning of the story, the life-sustaining bond of human beings with the land. Wang always returns to this.
Wang receives his livelihood and spiritual rejuvenation from the land. He experiences harmony with O-lan working beside him. His sole source of stability is in the land, and this is why he always transforms any material gain into land. You see the decline of the House of Hwang as it becomes separated from the land, and the same seems to hold for Wang when he is apart from his land.
What do you make of the turn in the story by which Wang Lung's fortunes rise--not from the fruit of the earth but from the money and jewels he and O-lan have stolen? Is it possible that the author means that labor and the good earth are not enough? That the poor farmer couldn't survive without a stroke of good fortune or the opportunity to take something from the rich? Or, perhaps this money is the evil seed of the Wang family's eventual disintegration. Frequently in the book, silver and land are presented as opposing values, as when O-lan takes silver for the furniture but won't sell the land before leaving for the south.
2. THE STATUS OF WOMEN
Pearl Buck uses the inferior status of women in traditional China with great emotional impact. The casual way in which a fellow refugee talks of strangling a girl child at birth or selling her as a slave is in itself a shock. Wang Lung and O-lan deal with both these alternatives. A crucial event in their marital relationship occurs when O-lan, submitting as she must to her husband's authority, hands over her two small pearls. Although women's roles varied, all were subservient. As a peasant wife a woman worked both in the house and in the fields. She could be a household slave, like Cuckoo. She could be a prostitute serving any man's pleasure in a tea house, like Lotus Flower, or a concubine serving only her master's pleasure, again like Lotus when she assumes this role in Wang's house. Finally, she could be an upper-class wife like the eldest son's wife in the Great House, with servants to wait on her and do the housework. Rich or poor, if she is a wife, her principal function is to bear sons.
Another aspect of Chinese life that seemed designed to make women suffer was the practice of altering the feet of girls so they could barely walk. The Chinese custom of foot-binding was meant to please men esthetically and to enhance a man's status by showing he was wealthy enough for his wife or concubine not to work. You might compare bound feet with the "wasp" waists that were fashionable for Western women in the nineteenth century. Those waists, which a man could encircle with his two hands, were achieved only by tight corseting that forced the internal organs out of place and often caused injury. Tight corseting was not as crippling as foot-binding but it had the same purpose--to please men.
3. THE FAMILY
The family is historically the central unit of Chinese society. In The Good Earth it is also the center of Wang Lung's world, second only to his attachment to the land. Precise rules govern all relationships in the Chinese family. A member's position in the family determines his behavior and even his name. You see this in the novel, in which Wang Lung's sons are spoken of as Eldest Son or Second Son, and the uncle's family are not aunt or cousin but the uncle's wife and the uncle's son. The rules are binding: a wife is obedient to her husband and children to their father, and everyone--husbands, wives, children--must respect the elderly.
The dominance of males runs through these rules as well. A wife who has borne sons, like O-lan, is entitled to more respect and consideration from her husband than if she has borne only daughters. Wang Lung is obliged to yield to the demands of his uncle and the uncle's family because they are related to him on his father's side.
You may find this particular obligation unfair, imposing a heavy burden on Wang Lung, especially considering the character of the uncle and his family. Wang frees himself from their demands only by supplying his uncle and aunt with opium, an addictive and debilitating drug.
On the other hand, Wang's father is so sure that his son and grandsons will look after him that he endures the hardships of the famine with smiling good humor. His trust is well founded. Wang Lung gives him the first share of whatever food there is, even if he must deprive his own children. Some nomadic societies leave the old people who cannot keep up with the migration to starve and die. Can you make a case for either of these two customs? Are both too extreme?
Wang Lung gives his old father not only respect and obedience but also loving care. From his own sons Wang receives only a show of respect. As you read, consider why Wang Lung fails so completely to understand his sons. Is this simply a case of the generation gap? You may want to remember that Wang grew up as the hard-working son of a poor farmer, while they grew up as sons of a prosperous landowner.
4. RELIGION AND GOOD FORTUNE
Wang Lung's religious beliefs are a mixture of different traditions. Primarily, since he is a farmer, he worships (burns incense) before two small earth gods in the field to bring good fortune to himself and his family. But he also appeals to the goddess of mercy to give his daughter-in-law a boy child in return for a new robe. He buys a paper god of wealth when his fortunes are on the rise and scolds the gods when misfortune occurs. He is superstitious and believes in omens. He tries to fool the evil spirits, as when he hides his own baby boy under his robe and proclaims out loud that it is only a worthless girl child.
Wang Lung also respects the more sophisticated Confucian principles of family deference and is pleased when his son erects an ancestral shrine in the house. As a matter of convention he gives donations to both the Buddhist and Taoist temples on the birth of his first son. This mixture of deference to the ancient philosophies and to the spirit world was typical of everyday Chinese religious practice. However, the more established religious institutions seem more the preserve of the educated. For a simple farmer like Wang, even when he becomes rich, the little earthen idols--gods of the renewal of life--are supremely powerful. Although he treats them badly and blames them for misfortune, he is afraid to reject them totally, and he ultimately returns to them since they have "power over earth."
Wang's personal conversations with his gods may seem a bit disrespectful to you. But if you believed, as Wang did, that these gods had purposely created your good fortune or your bad times, you might respond in the same way. How does your religious heritage teach you to deal with adversity?
5. MORALITY AND NECESSITY
You may agree that on the whole Wang Lung is a good man. O-lan, too, strikes most readers as a genuinely good woman. But there are certainly grounds to argue the contrary, at least on some issues. Infanticide, pillaging, slavery, drug selling, and other less severe actions raise questions about what codes of morality do exist in the novel. Western readers have to keep in mind differences between their culture and that of Wang Lung, where custom allows some unfamiliar behavior. You might ask, however, whether custom and morality, a sense of right and wrong, are the same thing. Or is there a morality so basic to human beings that local customs, though widely accepted, are actually violations of that morality?
In a world as harsh as Wang Lung's, morality may not always be so clear. As Wang and the other Chinese struggle to survive, what role does necessity play? Is there a justification for stealing? For infanticide? Under what circumstances?